Methodism, Marx, cooperatives and conspiracies

Since Morgan Phillips coined the phrase that Labour owed “more to Methodism than Marx” it has been repeated by many others – from Harold Wilson to Barry Jones. But what if the catchy alliteration is wrong?

Race Mathews’ new book, Of Labour and Liberty, shifts the focus from Methodism back to the co-operative or distributist ideas of Robert Owen and a long Catholic tradition starting with the Papal encyclicals Rerum Novarum and Quadragesimo through to the work and words of Cardinals Manning in England and Moran in Australia.

Race has been a Federal and State MP, Victorian Cabinet Minister and former Whitlam Chief of Staff. The book started as a DTheol and is the culmination of decades of research and writing into workers’ cooperatives in Australia, Basque Mondragon and their origins in Catholic teachings.

Essentially it covers where the cooperative impetus came from; what it entailed; what went wrong in Australia; how its aims got subverted and twisted; and what its lessons are for us today. For a book with an academic origin it has, at times, the sense and pace of a thriller as he details some of the conspiracies which undid the Australian distributism movement and twisted its actions into a failed plan to make Australia into a theocracy.

The co-operative movement started in the UK in the mid-1800s and still worldwide represents a billion members, $1700 billion turnover and jobs for 196 million workers despite the many demutualisations in the 1980s – many of which ended badly along with the view of finance capitalism which was the rationale for the changes in their status.

Cardinal Manning translated Rerum Novarum into English and preached its teachings to not only his own flock but all of Britain. He defended workers and strikes, as in the 1891 dock strike, and railed against poverty. In Australia Sydney’s Cardinal Moran followed in similar style in the early 20th century and probably, Mathews contends, inspired the 1907 Harvester Case judgment which incorporated the encyclical’s just wage concept. In the UK and Europe the encyclical’s distributist philosophy was also promoted by Belloc, Chesterton, Maritain, Mounier, Aldabable and later Arizmendiarritia – the impetus for Mondragon and the subject of both a previous Mathews’ book and the important penultimate chapter of this one.

The book relates the development, aims and activities of Australian Catholic Action through the 1931 formation of the Campion Society and the 1938 creation of the Australian National Secretariat for Catholic Action (ANSCA) and the Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement. There is, BTW, a very useful glossary of abbreviations in the front of the book which is well worth studying before venturing too far.

The gripping thriller parts relate to the battle between the Catholic Action founders such as Frank Maher, Kevin Kelley, B.A. Santamaria and Cardinal Mannix. Essentially Catholic Action originally did not aim to be party political although Cardinal Moran was magnificently proud of being a labour man and Mannix was a radical on Irish and other issues. But Mathews traces the conspiratorial manoeuvrings of the Franco and Mussolini supporting Santamaria and the creation of the Movement and the National Civic Council as the Catholic Action program, particularly in Victoria, morphed into a clandestine campaign to take over the ALP – starting with campaigns to take over Communist dominated unions; moving on to taking over unions controlled by ALP figures; targeting the ALP National Executive itself; and, ultimately precipitating the ALP Split.

The best independent judgement on this process came from Melbourne University academic, Frank Knopfelmacher (an outspoken anti-Communist), in a 1982 ABC review of a Gerard Henderson book when he said: “After reading Henderson it is no longer possible to sustain the thesis that Evatt was a Communist sympathiser, as I had hitherto sincerely believed…..The wealth of astounding revelations…reveal that before and throughout the (ALP) Split, the principal aim of the Movement was not Australia’s security but her conversion to, or political manipulation into, a fundamentalist brand of Catholicism …Henderson’s story convincingly supports the following conclusion: A fundamentalist Catholic outfit, supported by part of the Hierarchy, set up a secret organisational weapon for the purposes of penetrating and dominating the traditional domiciles of Australian Irish Catholicism – the unions and the ALP- and them, Australia.”

For a very frank description of how the Movement went about this see the blog’s posts on the books, works and life of Noel Tennison. Tennison started working with the DLP and ended up working for the Liberal Party. So, while Knopfelmacher’s comment was once true about the traditional Australian Catholic domicile it is no longer so – as demonstrated by Paul Ormonde’s comparisons of Liberal Cabinet Catholic numbers in Robert Menzies’ Ministries (one in total) and the numbers in Ministries from John Howard onwards.

The blog knew many of the players in all this and thought it had read a lot on the subject. But Mathews’ chapters on this clandestine campaign are an especially revealing and compelling narrative.

The book’s conclusion is a fast-paced but comprehensive summary of the whole story and includes a what if? counter-factual about what might have happened if a few things had been different. Most importantly it ends on an optimistic note about the current state and future potential for co-operatives. Consistent with this, and the counter-factual, the book ends with a quote: “The future is not set. There is no fate but what we make of it ourselves.” And if that sounds familiar it comes, befittingly from a film buff like Mathews, from James Cameron’s Teminator 2: Judgment Day.

Note: The Knopfelmacher interview is copyright the ABC but permission was given for reproduction in the book.